Friday, February 21, 2014

Some African History (1)

Some of the world's greatest cities during the Middle Ages were on the eastern coast of Africa. Throughout the Middle Ages, great civilizations ringed the Indian Ocean. From Egypt, people could travel the Red Sea to reach the ocean, then sail south to Africa, or continue east to the Arab world and India. They were the superpowers of the Swahili Coast.  They were cosmopolitan cities whose cultural diversity would have made places like New York and Sao Paolo look like monocultures. Among those great medieval cities were places like Songo Mnara, a gorgeous and bustling Swahili city built on an island off the coast of Tanzania in the fourteenth century. It's been preserved so well because archaeologists from an earlier era didn't believe it was a legitimate African ruin — they believed the architecture was too sophisticated, and therefore had to have been crafted by Arab traders who wanted an outpost. That idea has long been disproven, and now the archaeological community accepts that the vibrant Swahili culture was purely African in origin, and that the cultural influences from the Middle East cut both ways. The Swahili Coast and its luxurious arts and goods were an enormous influence on their neighbors ringing the Indian Ocean.

At a time when European cities were getting wiped out by plagues and famines, Songo Mnara was thriving. Today, Songo Mnara is a ruin that had been almost forgotten. It was built by the people of Kilwa Kisiwanti, an ancient city on a nearby island, and they did it the way today's best city planners might. Though no one is sure why, they wanted to erect this city quickly. So they drew up a city plan and organized the homes, palace, and town's mosques around graceful open areas, with generously-sized courtyards that the locals used to greet traveling merchants. Swahili towns didn't have marketplaces like comparable cities in Europe, the Middle East and China. Instead, archaeologists are learning, trade was conducted in the courtyards, which were halfway between public and private space. Similar kinds of public/private areas were common in ancient Rome as well.

The people who lived in Songo Mnara were part of a Sultanate, or city-state, connected to their parent city of Kilwa. They spoke Kiswahili (related to today's Swahili), and were part of an enormous cultural network that spanned the coast from Somalia to Tanzania. Like the Arab peoples they traded with, the people of the Swahili Coast were Muslims and some of their most breathtaking architecture can be seen in the towers that crown their mosques.

Swahili society is traditionally matrilocal (meaning that a man, after marriage, moves in with his wife's family), which doesn't seem to jibe with the more socially conservative form of Islam practiced on the Swahili Coast today. It is thought that the later Omani occupation of the region imposed a stricter version of Islam with regard to women, overwriting what could have been a brand of Swahili Islam with greater gender equality.

University of Bristol archaeologist Mark Horton believes he's uncovered a mosque that was purpose-built for women. Horton is an expert on mosque architecture and believes that such a mosque would be unique in the Islamic world and would have reflected the importance of women in Swahili society of the middle ages. It's possible that women prayed alongside the men in the many other mosques of the town, and eventually were segregated into their own mosque as their roles changed over time. We don't know for sure, and Horton says that it's always possible that the building was for some other purpose — perhaps a Koranic school — they still haven't figured out yet.

But the power of the Swahili Coast fell as European powers rose. At the end of the fifteenth century, the Portuguese arrived and Indian Ocean trade changed. Many stone towns were abandoned around this time, often hastily. Through the ensuing 500 years of colonial occupation—Portuguese, Omani, British—the Swahili culture that coalesced in the medieval period has persisted. Today, more than a million people in East Africa still identify as Swahili (from Sawahil, an Arabic word meaning "people of the coast").

Kilwa in the sixteenth century, a century after the city's heyday.

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